Plough My Account Sign Out
My Account
    View Cart

    Subtotal: $

    Checkout
    people walking on a city crosswalk

    Humans Are Magnificent

    A philosopher defends humanity against its detractors.

    By Johannes Hartl

    May 31, 2024
    0 Comments
    0 Comments
    0 Comments
      Submit

    Are humans actually something magnificent, or are we a plague? There are times when you are completely uncertain – especially when actually relating with people. A few days ago, there was a fire at my parents’ house. They are senior citizens. Flames were suddenly bursting out of the basement window and the first floor was filled with thick smoke. It could easily have meant their deaths. But things turned out differently. The fire department was alerted immediately and arrived promptly. Neighbors came to help and offered them a place to stay overnight; everything went very smoothly. When someone is in distress, others help. This applies to personal relationships, but is also reflected in people’s impressive willingness to donate when something terrible happens somewhere in the world. We humans are obviously designed to cooperate. And yet sometimes the case is completely the opposite. “How can people do such things?” is the intuitive question we ask when the news once again reports on an assassination attempt, torture, or wars around the world.

    “Man, the strange creature: with his feet in the mud, his head in the stars” is how the German-Jewish writer Else Lasker-Schüler (1869–1945) described the dilemma. Are humans something magnificent, or are they a rather pathetic species? Or to put it in more modern terms, are Homo sapiens the crown of creation or the plague of the planet?

    Recently, a young professor invited me to an interview on his YouTube channel. He is a physicist, and right from the start he quizzed me on the latest, most difficult questions on the borderline between technology and philosophy. Will artificial intelligence one day develop consciousness? And if so, should such intelligences also be granted human rights? And why should robots, which are superior to humans in many respects, not be accorded human dignity? These are indeed excellent questions. Why should humans be privileged? Haven’t they lost their right to special treatment if “consciousness,” “intelligence,” or even “free will” are no longer valid as distinguishing features? My curious interviewer challenged me with these topics in order to answer the question that will be one of the most important questions of the future: what are we and what makes us special?

    portrait of a smiling boy

    Photo by Terricks Noah on / Unsplash.

    My answer began with a contradiction. It is not a question of when “artificial intelligence” will develop consciousness, because there is no such thing as artificial intelligence. What we call AI is the extremely fast simulation of decision-making processes, generating results from the multitude of data available on the network that can be deceptively similar to the achievement of intelligent activity. But it is not intelligence. Intellegere is Latin and means “to understand, to recognize.” When an algorithm selects what is probably the right answer from millions of text modules, who is doing the understanding? There is no understanding and recognition without someone who understands and recognizes something. “Artificial intelligence” is no more intelligent than a pocket calculator or a library: just because both can be used to quickly find something out, it does not mean that there is an intelligence there that understands something.

    The idea that consciousness could develop from AI is based on a misunderstanding. Our consciousness is not an abstract state that occurs on an arbitrary substance, like the relationship between the state of frozenness and the substance of liquid. Consciousness is the state of a person. In fact, I don’t even know whether my neighbor sees the green of the meadow as green in the same way that I do.

    The consciousness that essentially defines us as human beings is characterized by a first-person perspective, by an introspection from which we cannot completely detach ourselves. But that is not the whole truth.

    Because we are social beings and find ourselves in a space of shared language, shared actions, and diverse social interdependencies, we experience our consciousness as connected to the consciousness of others. In fact, an infant develops self-awareness only gradually. Before babies learn to say “I,” they say “mama,” perceive the gaze of another person, and gradually become aware of themselves. “People become ‘I’ through ‘Thou,’” is how the philosopher Martin Buber describes it. Attributing consciousness to other people is therefore just as natural to us humans as experiencing ourselves as conscious beings. We cannot do otherwise. We hold firm to the fact that, from the very beginning, consciousness is my very own consciousness and at the same time oriented toward other people. There is no such thing as abstract consciousness, because abstracting from the perspective of my own experience is purely an experiment of imagination.

    portrait of an elderly man

    Self portrait by Ibreem / Flickr.

    Everything that is perceived is perceived by someone. This makes sense immediately if you ask yourself: How can a book be read if there is no one to read it? A photocopier can scan the pages, but it does not understand the content of the book. Perception belongs to a person who can say “me.” Of course, this does not mean that the world only exists because someone perceives it, but it does mean that consciousness always contains a first-person perspective. What the world looks like through the eyes of another person remains a fascinating, unsolvable mystery. Nevertheless, we naturally assume that other people also relate to the world; otherwise our language would make no sense at all. In fact, we constantly find that we can act together in the world by means of language, evidently with success. Thinking is also something that is always my very own, but which can only take place in a social space. After all, we did not even invent language as individuals. Since we cannot completely separate our ‘self’ from other persons who also say “I,” we treat persons differently from things.

    In one of his most important sections on ethics, Immanuel Kant writes in his Critique of Practical Reason that persons are beings that not only have value, but also dignity. By this, he means that while we can use things, we must never treat people merely as a means to an end. A stone has no first-person perspective; it is not a person. It does not contradict the essence of a stone if it is used as a means to build a house. On the other hand, human dignity assumes that the essence of a person is completely denied when they are used merely as a means to an end. Everyone intuitively senses this when they feel exploited, manipulated, or abused. This is precisely why slavery and human trafficking are crimes against human dignity. The face of a person that confronts me contains the demand: “Treat me as a human being, not as a thing. For I carry within me a mysterious first-person perspective, just like you. Ultimately, you cannot see through me, and the world looks different through my eyes than through the eyes of anyone else.”

    In addition to our unique feature of having a consciousness that is always that of a first-person subject and always socially interwoven, we humans have another characteristic that radically distinguishes us from machines. Our consciousness is embodied. Our perception of the world is inseparable from our perception of our own body. I see a tree because I stand in front of it with my body. I see it differently if I climb onto its branches. I perceive even more of it if I touch it, smell it, hear the rustling of its leaves in the wind. All of this happens through my physical senses. I feel the bark of the tree, but this is because I feel my own palm on the bark. So consciousness does not inhabit the body like a genie inhabits a bottle, but the two are inextricably interwoven. There is no perception that is not related to our physical senses. We are in this world as physical beings and inhabit it as material persons.

    portrait of a young woman

    Photo by Rachel McDermott / Unsplash.

    In addition to being in the world, we experience the world emotionally. We are tired, moody, or happy; interested, in love, and offended. All these color our experience, shaping and determining how we perceive the world. Our moods and emotions are also inseparable from our body. The world has a different effect on us when we are hungry or stressed, and there are physical reasons for our hunger and stress. Each of us is an animated body, a unity of consciousness and body. And as this unity, we are also inhabitants of an ethical and meaningful world from the beginning of our lives. This starts with the fact that when we perceive the world, we always unconsciously choose what we focus our attention on, what is important to us. The right way to live, what is good and what is true, where we should direct our energies and what we should distance ourselves from: all of this is already inscribed into the basic place we find ourselves in life.

    This mysterious interweaving is the source of our dignity and our greatest vulnerability. If we could simply abstract ourselves from how other people treat us, we would be much less vulnerable. Human beings are infinitely vulnerable to evil. And because only humans are actually free in how we treat each other, and because we are not bound by instinct to treat each other well, we are also capable of evil. Lions eat gazelle, but no one would think of calling this behavior evil. Lions will never have to answer to a court of law. But we humans call certain behavior in others and in ourselves evil. This is the only reason why we have jurisdiction and laws, precisely because we see ourselves as having certain rights and therefore also certain duties. What sounds like a philosophically abstract question becomes extremely relevant in research with AI: Who is liable if a self-driving car runs someone over? You can’t really put the car on trial. Humans are the plague of the planet, the only species capable of destroying the entire world – we sometimes hear in the context of ecological debates. But the flip side is often overlooked. Only humans can do evil because only humans can do good. Squirrels do not perform a moral good in caring for their offspring. They do this out of instinct and do not have to weigh up one moral good against another. Humans, however, do. Good is by no means always the easier path; and yet humans very often do good.

    So why do we humans have dignity? Because we are and have something that does not exist anywhere else in the visible creation: spirit, consciousness, the ability to ask moral and aesthetic questions. Why do we humans have all this? A purely biological view of human beings cannot answer this question. And why should it? Ultimately, biology only looks at all living beings in terms of their natural characteristics. However, we humans are not obliged to see ourselves as merely biological beings. On the contrary, often choosing the ethical good means directly avoiding the choice that is in accordance with the law – and this choice might be the obvious one from a biological perspective. Human beings also belong to a different order of being, that of the spirit. Where biology must remain silent, religious interpretation begins. An image of the Creator himself – this is how the biblical creation stories see our place in the cosmos.

    In radical circles of the climate protection movement, humans are referred to as the “plague of the planet,” and by authors such as Yuval Noah Harari we are described as animals with “hackable” software in our brains – ultimately just computers. In times like these, it is important to speak anew of the dignity of Homo sapiens. Humanity must be defended against its despisers.

    Contributed By Johannes Hartl Johannes Hartl

    Johannes Hartl is a philosopher, Catholic theologian, author of several books, and a sought-after speaker.

    Learn More
    0 Comments
    You have ${x} free ${w} remaining. This is your last free article this month. We hope you've enjoyed your free articles. This article is reserved for subscribers.

      Already a subscriber? Sign in

    Try 3 months of unlimited access. Start your FREE TRIAL today. Cancel anytime.

    Start free trial now